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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

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  • Posted July 15, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A neat, tidy summary of evolutionary thought

    Devoting each chapter to a particular individual or group of scientists, intellectuals and philosophers, Rebecca Stott chronicles the inquisitive minds that wondered as to our origins before Darwin's research. One of the best anecdotes involved da Vinci: he was in Milan when some people came down from the mountains with cockle and oyster fossils and asked "how did they get up there?" Leonardo was just as baffled as they were, so he bought some cockles, put them in a long container full of sea water and sand to represent their natural environment and measured the distance they traveled each day. Doubtful of the "knowledge" of priests who cited the biblical flood story as the explanation for sea creatures living on mountaintops, he discovered that the cockles moved no more than eight feet a day. So, in order to cover the few hundred miles from the Adriatic Sea (only slightly farther away than coastal towns like Genoa) to such lofty heights, a cockle would have needed 452 years. Even IF the flood occurred, it didn't last for centuries! Thus da Vinci realized that the mountaintops were, long, long ago, a seabed. Voila! Eureka! You just have to love science for providing us with such information...

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 16, 2012

    In recent years public discussion of evolution has been almost e

    In recent years public discussion of evolution has been almost
    exclusively presented as a debate between the science of natural
    selection and the pseudo-science of intelligent design. Gone are the
    days, not so long ago, when Stephen Jay Gould could romp gleefully
    through almost any era of civilization's history and pluck some
    connection to Darwin's Origin. Rebecca Stott has assembled within the
    pages of Darwin's Ghosts more than a dozen vignettes of the famous and
    not-so-famous of Darwin's intellectual predecessors. She reaches as far
    back as the foundational explorations of Aristotle right up to Darwin's
    time with Alfred Wallace; and, geographically, from the middle eastern
    Arab scholar Al-Jahiz in Iraq to the American scientist Halderman in
    Boston. Along the way she provides lively portraits of Leonardo,
    Palissy, Trembly, Maillet, Diderot, Whitehurst, Erasmus Darwin, Geoffroy
    Saint-Hilaire, Lamarck, Buffon, Grant, Chambers, and Mathews along with
    other passing commentaries. The ghost story begins with a letter that
    Darwin received from a professor at Oxford, Baden Powell, just one month
    after publication of Origin. Unlike many others, Powell was not
    attacking Darwin's theory - he was taking Darwin to task for his failure
    to properly acknowledge his predecessors. Powell was absolutely right.
    Stott is too kind to Darwin in recounting his response. It took Darwin
    6 years to write 8 mousey, self-serving pages of historical background -
    stuck on as an appendix to the 4th edition of Origin. It is difficult
    to avoid the conclusion (especially in light of his handling of Alfred
    Wallace's famous letter of 1848) that Darwin, spoiled and privileged,
    was so convinced of the intellectual uniqueness of his theory of natural
    selection that it would have never dawned on him to accept that his
    ideas were part of a continuum. Darwin's Ghosts sports long and
    thorough, annotated notes and an extensive bibliography as well Darwin's
    original Appendix to the 4th edition of Origin - An Historical Sketch of
    the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species. This is an
    outstanding and welcome contribution to the literature on the historical
    development of the theory of evolution. It restores a proper balance to
    discussions of evolutionary theory, clearly demonstrating that Darwin,
    like Newton, brilliant scientists though they were, both "stood on
    the shoulders of giants." Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science
    William Paterson University

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2012

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